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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Vatican condemns Nobel Prize to Robert Edwards

This year's Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to a British biologist, Robert Edwards, who spent much of his career at Cambridge University. Along with Patrick Steptoe, Edwards developed IVF as a response to human infertility. The first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978, and since then about 4 million babies have been brought into the world using the technique, enabling many couples to achieve their goals of becoming biological parents.

In response, Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, the Vatican's bioethics spokesman, has made the arrogant statement that the Nobel prize committee's choice of Professor Edwards was "completely out of order"; the problem, according to the Vatican, is that many human embryos end up being destroyed as a result of the creation of excess embryos during IVF.

This is, of course, a typically foolish statement by the Vatican. The embryos concerned are tiny dots of protoplasm that are totally unlike an adult human being, a child, or even a fetus that has undergone a period of development in the womb. These little dots are incapable of feeling pain, having any instinct to protect themselves, or possessing any other form of sentience. They possess no fear of being destroyed and experience no suffering when they are destroyed, and no one who is capable of suffering has bonded with them in the slightest. The destruction of these very small collections of cells does no harm to families or the social fabric. There is no reason for them to be protected by our moral norms and sentiments or by the law.

In short, there is no reason based on social welfare or the welfare of sentient beings why we should regret the destruction of tiny embryos created through IVF; there is no reason to condemn it morally, or attempt to prevent it by law. There is even less reason to regret the destruction of these embryos than to regret early-term abortions. The Vatican's morality is not based on anything rational but on recondite ideas of natural law, the will of God, and the ensoulment of non-sentient life. It puts human happiness below its bizarre and miserable version of morality.

And of course, this shows exactly why the Vatican's claims to moral authority must be questioned constantly. If the Vatican hierarchs had their way, much that is good in human life would be condemned morally and even legally prohibited - make no mistake, the Vatican presses wherever it can for the law to impose its views by force.

The Vatican regularly calls for moral condemnations and legal prohibitions, based on its understanding of transcendent purposes acting in the universe. Very well, it is entitled to do that - I respect its freedom of speech. But when it does so, we are entitled to reply by asking whether its understandings have any truth to them. Does its God even exist? Is its tradition of moral teaching divinely guided, or is it all too human and flawed? Why shouldn't we condemn the Vatican, in our turn, when its bizarre worldview stands in the way of ordinary human happiness and reasonable aspirations?

Mightn't the world be better without this anachronistic institution constantly telling us how to run our lives? I'm not suggesting that the Vatican be shut down by force, but I do suggest that the time has well and truly arrived for its total marginalisation. In particular, governments should ignore it, and the more sensible and humane members of its congregations should leave the pews and find themselves another church.

16 comments:

Robert N Stephenson said...

While it is the Vatican that makes this statement there are a growing number of non religious zealots growing out there in our world...

I worked in IVF labs for about a year with a lot of Christians who woere the medicos and rsearch specialists - they had no problems despite whatever the Catholics were raving about...

But, and this was perhaps a bit more disturbing, people who claimed no religious belief were causing as much trouble as the pious tribe...

Right to Life groups also protest against IVF or any assisted pregnancy and these groups are made up of (I won't call them atheists because that isn't really quite accurate) non religious, or sectarian people who for some reason think it is wrong to tamper with the natural process....

So, while the Vatican is easy to throw rocks at we all seem to miss the rabbits making the most trouble.

Brian said...

Sorry Robert, but right to lifers in my experience are religious.

I know a high up IVF specialist in Melbourne and the people he has problem with are the likes of the Vatican.

Stuart said...

I have never in my life met a Right-to-Lifer who wasn't religious. Yes, I have met many. I have done clinic defense.

Robert N Stephenson said...

I have had discussion with many people who would not jump up and down and wave flags to the fact, but very few people were of the religious variety:

My Professor in IVF only had issues with Catholics and Muslims, who would threaten often. The protest groups were usually a mixed bag with a good proportion not claiming a religion.

In many discussion - not specificly about IVF, but it did come into conversation when it was revealed tnat was where I worked, I got all manner of suggestions about how it was wrong and for all manner of reasons - only a few were religious based.

It is a misconception (pun intended) to believe only Christians or other religious people fuel protest against reporductive medicine -- you could canvass most of Adelaides Christians and find quite a majority support the work, but you will also find quite a lot of non religious folk standing against it; usually the same folk who argue against GM foods and live meat trading.

Or, are qwe to believe that only Christians stand against GM foods - if we are to see this anti-IVF position is to believed.

David said...

It is conceivable to me to envisage how someone who isn't necessarily religious and from the usual Christian 'right to lifer' background could come to view IVF as some improper tampering with nature without having met someone who makes such claims.

There is a growing confidence (and thus increasing vocality) in those to whom I wouldn't describe as 'religious' but as 'spiritual'. Don't get me wrong, their claims are as easily refuted (when they're dragged into specificity from their comfortable cloud of amorphous and nubulous belief systems).

One feature of these individuals has been a constant fallacious appeal to nature almost as some kind of deity, if not in action or purpose but in obligation. As such, it is Nature that has deemed couples to be infertile and we risk upsetting the balance and thus incurring the wrath of Nature should we go too far.

In reality you can just about replace 'God' with 'Nature' and you get a lot of similar arguments, even some of those which rely on a consciousness, purposeful plan or goal. Belief and faith is a more diverse and baffling realm of human thought than we often give credit for when discussing such issues and as such many, many people fall between the cracks of such discourse because they don't think the discussion is relevant to their beliefs.

Sigmund said...

While the Catholic hierarchy may come down against IVF their apologists in Catholic countries tend to step very warily around the question. In particular their is usually a reluctance to admit that the source of embryonic cells used in stem cell research is directly connected with the IVF procedure. This is because the lay apologists know that IVF solves problems that most of us can appreciate and at the same time does not cause deliberate death of something to which most us can connect. In educated countries there is so much biological education and exposure that it simply doesn't work to claim that a clump of 8 cells in a tube is equivalent to a human being.

Greywizard said...

There may be others (other than catholics, that is) who are opposed to IVF, but the Vatican opposition is highly organised, greatly respected (by the media at least), and constitutes the main opposition to any interference with the life process at any stage (aside, of course, for medical intervention for the purpose of cure and prolongation of life). It has diplomatic representatives in most countries, and almost completely unrestricted access (for a religious body) to the UN and its organisations. It threatens politicians and others with excommunication, and it has so many different voices speaking the same language that it is guaranteed press coverage even for its most inane rants and diatribes.

It's idea of life is a kind of pure vitalism, depending only on the existence of living biological cells. It cares not at all when it affronts the dignity or grown women, children, or anyone else with life plans, hopes and aspirations. It is more serious to abort a foetus than to let a woman, with all her hopes and dreams, die. It is more serious to destroy an embryo than to abuse a child.

It is a morally bankrupt absolutism, and it needs to be opposed with all the means available. Removing its destructive influence on the UN would be a good first step. Its arrogance has no limit, and it has no critical way to look at itself and the great harm that it causes. It would be better, as you say, Russell, if this primitive association of celibate men were to disappear.

Marc said...

" The embryos concerned are tiny dots of protoplasm that are totally unlike an adult human being"

I think it is rather your own wisdom that is foolish. The embryos concerned in actuality have a complete sequence of DNA, are of the human species, and are already maturing towards adulthood. The fact of the matter is that both you and I existed at this point of development previously. They are persons - tiny, yes - but persons nonetheless.

steve oberski said...

the more sensible and humane members of its congregations should leave the pews and find themselves another church.

The first part make sense but if the members have left the RCC why join another church ?

I left the RCC in my early teens and I felt no need to fill the void with another church. I couldn't get away from the arrogance, dogma and most of all the repetitive, life wasting and maddeningly boring rituals fast enough.

The more sensible and humane members will hopefully be influenced by increasing marginalization of the RCC.

The good news is that is seems that the organization working hardest at marginalizing the RCC is the RCC itself.

Kirth Gersen said...

I know any number of non-religious people who are nevertheless guided almost solely by "woo." A lot of these people think that anything "natural" must by definition be good (I always advise them to avoid ingesting arsenic or belladonna anyway), and that anything "artificial" must by definition be harmful -- this includes GMOs, INF, vaccinations, and so on. "Non-religious" might not be the right adjective, but they're more likely to vaguely believe in some sort of earth mother goddess than in Catholocism.

That's not to say that the overwhelming majority of pro-lifers aren't monotheists -- it's just a counterexample of people on the other side of the political and religious spectrum making common cause with them on some issues, and for much the same reasoning (however much they deny it).

Russell Blackford said...

No, they are not persons. They are not even sentient.

Gordon Campbell said...

Bioethics highlights a problem with the ‘let’s treat religion with deference’ crowd.

There are those -- not religious themselves -- who are happy to treat religious leaders as if they have some sort of special insight into ethics. It’s the tack taken by many of the anti-gnu-atheist atheists: ‘I don’t accept any specific religious truth claims, but religion has great wisdom on how to live’.

I’m sure this is more politeness than a sincere belief for many of the anti-gnu-atheist atheists, but it’s misguided.

Medical science has greatly relieved human suffering, and will continue to do so – and religion has, for the most part, stood in the way, and will continue to do so. Yes, we should be polite to religious people – but when they want to stop medical science we need to tell them that their premises and their conclusions are wrong and that we’ll do the best we can within a democratic, secular, pluralist society to ignore their mistaken morality.

Cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, MS, Alzheimer’s: these can be cured, and religion is standing in the way. Bullshit kills. These are our lives we’re talking about here, and the lives of our loved ones.

David said...

Gordon you touch on something Dan Dennett has written and spoken about quite a bit - the belief in belief.

Those who lack belief themselves but believe there is something inherently redeeming and beneficial to belief, even if they themselves either don't need it or can't achieve it.

Marc - at best you could try and say they are 'potential' persons but in order for them attain this potential far more human involvement and scientific meddling would be required. Otherwise you have just defined being human down to an arrangment of molecules we call DNA. Somehow I don't think you yourself would agree with such a reductionist and materialistic definition, I know I don't and I'm usually the accused of such things.

ColinGavaghan said...

Good post, Russell.

IMO, the view that a tiny speck of 'human' life is automatically more valuable than any non-human life, regardless of sentience, consciousness, or any other attribute, is just absurd. This already has pernicious effects on how we think about the respective pros and cons of stem cell and animal research, and one day it may well matter when we come to think about non-carbon-based 'life'.

Mage said...

I must admit that the award doesn't diminish peoples view of IVF babies. Nevertheless, we are so grateful for having him born to enable longed-for babies to be born, I wonder what happens if he isn't born.

Dick Alstein said...

The Vatican's position is hypocritical for at least two reasons.

First, if they condemn the destruction of embryos during IVF, then they should truly curse their own god, because he designed the human body so badly that each year millions of embryos are aborted naturally through miscarriages.

Second, it's odd that they so prefer 'natural' fertilization, when they themselves abstain from it.